Career Advice for the Novice SQL Server DBA

In April, I ran a Question of the Month that asked, “What advice would you offer a novice DBA in order to help them along in their career.” As usual, the SQL Server community responded and provided a lot of great advice. Below, I have summarized (in no particular order) most of this advice to make it a little easier to read. Of course, if you want to see the original advice, and who contributed the advice, then click on the link above. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this list.

1) Take the time to become aware of all the many SQL Server resources on the web. They not only can help out when you are problem-solving, but also provide resources for your professional development. On the other hand, don’t assume everything you find on the web is accurate, or applicable to your situation. Perform your due diligence.

2) Ninety-five percent of the problems you run across in your day-to-day work has already been faced by other DBAs. Instead of reinventing the wheel, seek out answers to these problems from the web, whether it is reading blogs, articles, eBooks, videos, or forum posts; or ask another DBA you know. If you don’t know any other DBAs, join a SQL Server users group, attend a SQL Saturday or conference, or ask your questions in forums.

3) Keep in mind that no DBA knows all the answers, but good DBAs know where to find the answers.

4) Become proficient using the many tools included with SQL Server and the OS, such as Profiler, Performance Monitor, Management Studio, and the Business Intelligence Development Studio.

5) Don’t automatically assume that what someone has told you is necessarily true. Be wary, ask lots of questions, and check it out for yourself. At the same time, be wary of your own personal assumptions, as they may be leading you down a false path.

6) Continuously work on improving your people skills. As a DBA, you will constantly be working with end-users, developers, system administrators, managers, and many more. Your ability to be civil and to convey your point clearly (without blame or antagonism), is an important skill set.

7) Many issues or problems you run across in your work can be resolved in many different ways. Instead of always picking the easy and quick solution, take the time to research the problem and come up with the best solution.

8 ) The list of things you don’t know about SQL Server will always be longer than the list of things you do know. The only way to keep up is constant study and practice. Try to learn something new each day, and never stop learning.

9) Find a mentor who is willing to help you out in your career. This may be at work, or even over the web.

10) Participate in the SQL Server community by attending your local SQL Server users group, joining PASS, becoming active in SQL Server forums, participating in Twitter and LinkedIn discussions, and so on.

11) Find a few SQL Server blogs that you find useful and interesting, and read them regularly. As you have more time, increase the number of blogs you read so you continue to expand your knowledge base.

12) Don’t be afraid to admit when you make a mistake. And ask for help if you don’t know the answer.

13) Books Online is your friend. Google is your other friend.

14) Create a formal repository of scripts that you can use over and over again. Organize them to make them easy to find.

15) Create a formal test environment where you can test and experiment without worry of bringing your production system down. Always test changes in a test environment before rolling them out to production. In other words, measure twice, cut once.

16) Become familiar with any governmental regulations that affect your industry, and follow them appropriately.

17) Whenever you perform an installation of a SQL Server instance, document it so that you can rebuild the instance if necessary, and to provide useful background information when troubleshooting problems.

18) You need to become a master of your backup and recovery strategy through practice and testing. Knowing it inside and out will not only ensure a fast recovery if there is a problem, but it will also lesson any anxiety you might have about how you will face a major calamity. And since you can’t always be at work, be sure that you have trained others in back and recovery, and have fully documented the process.

19) Don’t get so comfortable in your current job that you become complacent and your career stagnates. Pursue excellence and opportunity.

20) Although it may sound cynical, always cover you backside. In other words, document everything.

21) Your attitude determines 80% of your success or failure as a DBA.

22) As a DBA, your role is to help others perform their job. Don’t become a cop enforcing arbitrary rules for the sake of “I’m the DBA, and I know what’s best.”

23) When there is a database emergency, you will be the first one with the water hose trying to put out the fire. When this happens, don’t get caught up in the anxiety. Take a deep breath, relax, think the emergency through, and only then begin to take action.

24) Learn to really listen to the people you work with, such as developers, end-users, your peers, your boss, and anyone else you work with. If you don’t fully understanding what they are saying, nicely ask them follow-up questions until you do fully understand. Don’t be the “arrogant DBA” that everyone hates, be the DBA that everyone looks up to.

25) Besides being a good listener, be sure that you clearly and accurately articulate to whomever you are communicating with, whether when speaking in person, writing a proposal, or sending an e-mail.

26) Work smart, and not just hard. Implement proven best practices and strategies from the wealth of knowledge that other DBAs have already contributed to the greater SQL Server community.

27) Automate as many routines tasks as you can, saving your time for more interesting work.

28) Whenever you identify and fix a problem, document it so that if the same problem arises later, finding the answer will be quick.

29) While ensuring a SQL Server’s data is secure is not glamorous work, it is critical that you protect data from the wrong people.

30) Be proactive, seeking out potential problems before they occur.

31) Learn to be flexible with your schedule, as your organization doesn’t revolve around you.

32) Give back to your fellow DBAs and the SQL Server community. Volunteer for events, speak at your local users group, answer forum questions, or become a mentor. There are many ways to contribute.

33) Enjoy your work, as it can be a very rewarding experience, not just a means to an end. “My favorite part of being a DBA is to be able to take a long-running query and make it exceedingly fast. The look of surprise and appreciation from the end-user is invaluable.”

34) Be nice to developers, they are really not evil. In fact, become their mentors, helping them learn how to get the most out of SQL Server.

35) Never say that “it’s not my job.” If a job needs to get done, then do it. Be a team player. On the other hand, don’t take on tasks you don’t have the skills or knowledge to successfully complete.

36) One of the best ways to build up your confidence in your career is to become excellent in what you do. While you can’t know everything about SQL Server, pick an area and specialize in it.

37) When troubleshooting or dealing with problem issues, don’t only focus on the facts, always ask “why”.

38) Create a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly checklists to ensure that you don’t forget anything important.

39) When you are assigned a server, make it your own and take full responsibility for it.

40) An “expert” is born from a “novice” who has endured lots of trail and error.

41) If you are running behind in your part of a larger project, be sure to let your teammates know. This is not only a courtesy, but perhaps they may be able to give you a hand.

42) Think long-term. In all your work, assume that you will be at that same job for the rest of your career, and act accordingly. When you do leave, you want the new DBA to be able to takeover your servers without a single problem or question.

43) As a new DBA, don’t necessarily take the first job you are offered. For example, if you are hired as the only DBA and get the pleasure of cleaning up well-intentioned database messes from the past, you may quickly question your choice to become a DBA. Instead, consider taking a first job with a larger company with more experienced DBAs who can become your mentors.

44) As a DBA, take care that you are not a machine running on a 365×24×7 basis with a 99.995 SLA guaranteed uptime. Enjoy what you are doing, because if you are in it just for a living, you will not be able to sustain it beyond a certain point.  Life, after all, is not data, number crunching, and weary eyes staring at the monitor in the wrong hours of the night. Take these situations in stride and as part-and-parcel of your job, but also learn to look beyond these things to the liveliness of life.

45) “I originally went to school and began work as an architect, and one of the most important ideas I took from that experience is that most architects treat their careers as a personal life’s work, in the same way, I’d imagine, that a doctor might. An architect or a doctor does spend his/her life working, but at the same time refining a personal body of skills and knowledge. That set of skills and knowledge has its own life as the person’s practice, independent of any specific job. It travels with the person. You can get fired from your job, but not lose your practice.

”This is the difference between “having a practice” and “doing a job.” A practice is part of your identity; your skills are something you refine because you want to get better, not because the boss said you have to go to training. A practice is something you can be passionate about. If you do this right, the passion makes you better, and makes you happier. People notice, and it’ll advance the more mundane parts of your life, like jobs, titles, earnings, and so on.”

8 thoughts on “Career Advice for the Novice SQL Server DBA

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  2. Brad, spectacular advice. I completely agree about attitude and its effect on success. I’ve run into a lot of smart, talented, bitter people who were going nowhere, but not for lack of talent. Skills can be learned, experience can be gained, but attitude is critical.

  3. Pingback: Something for the Weekend – SQL Server Links for the week 16/05/10 | John Sansom - SQL Server DBA in the UK

  4. Brad,

    Thanks for sharing. This was quite informative. I’m currently pursuing a certification, (MCITP) have purchased a computer, and installed the demo software (with practice tests) which accompanied Microsoft educational books.

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